Alex Karpovsky has taken the term "working actor" to a new level over the last two years. In addition to his continuing role as Ray Ploshansky on HBO's Girls, and a supporting turn in the Coen Brothers' upcoming drama Inside Llewyn Davis, Karpovsky found time to write, direct, and star in two extremely different but equally compelling films being released today. Rubberneck is an unsettling thriller about an unstable lab technician who becomes obsessed with a coworker after a one-night stand. And Red Flag is a quirky road trip comedy about a neurotic independent filmmaker who embarks on a tour across the American South. Both Rubberneck and Red Flag are available on Video on Demand, and will also begin a double-bill screening at Lincoln Center in New York City on Friday, Feb. 22. (Watch trailers for Rubberneck and Red Flag below.) Earlier this month in Tribeca, I sat down with Karpovsky to discuss his work in Rubberneck, Red Flag, and the second season of Girls. Here's the (slightly edited) transcript. [And beware! Spoilers lie ahead.]
Rubberneck is a drama, and Red Flag is a comedy — but screened together, they play off one another in some interesting ways: Themes of romantic obsession, alienation, depression…
The doubling wasn't preconceived or premeditated on my part. But I am very interested in flawed characters and character-driven stories rather than plot or spectacle or action-driven stories. And I think specifically within that, I'm very interested in stories revolving around obsession. I think we have both of those elements in both of the films. I wonder: If you played them at the same time, if they would peak and valley. I've never tried that before.
You tend to wear a lot of hats in your work, and Rubberneck and Red Flag are no different — you serve as writer, director, and star in both films. When you approach a project, do you think about it as writer, director, or actor first?
Probably a writer, because that's what comes first, chronologically. But I don't try to create these boundaries between these things. Hopefully it's all an idea that's being expressed through one voice, and we're just in different stages of this expression cycle. But I don't really like to have big types of walls between them.
Let's talk about your role in Rubberneck. The main character — shy, meek, quiet — isn't exactly your normal type.
Actually, we originally cast someone else. We had a very long, laborious casting process, and we found someone through great effort who we were finally happy with. We were thrilled with him. He was in his early 40s — considerably older than me… a different look, an entirely different build. We put him in the movie, but unfortunately, four days into production, he had a family crisis and he had to leave. So I played the role and we reshot what we had with him. It was never preconceived for me to be in the movie. It was just circumstance.
Both Rubberneck and Red Flag end with a near-suicide that's thwarted — fortunately— for both characters. Why is suicide such a recurring theme in your work?
I don't want to make light of suicide. I think we've all been touched by suicide, and I don't want to make fun of it. In Red Flag, it's coming from a place that's so misguided and absurd that it's a reflection on the character's own delusions, and how misguided his dreams are. I guess all suicide, you could argue, is that to some extent. It's tough to answer that question, because the reasons why in Rubberneck and Red Flag are so different. […] If you're making character-driven stories, it's hard to find a greater crescendo than a character unplugging his own existence. It seems like the ultimate dramatic climax, and maybe for that reason I'm drawn to it. Just to maximize my character arc.
Did you ever consider ending either film with a successful suicide?
What's a successful suicide?
Good point. I mean, a suicide that ended in your character's death.
In Rubberneck, we shot a few different versions. We shot it, we thought it would work… And it didn't, and we went back and reshot. One of those did involve a "successful" suicide, and technically and aesthetically, it's probably the best thing we ever shot in that movie. We got into the groove aesthetically, but it wasn't the way we wanted to end the story, so we went the other way.
So you didn't intend to play the lead in Rubberneck — but what about Red Flag? You must have written that with the idea that you'd star, since the lead character is "Alex Karpovsky."
Yes. I play a caricatured version of myself, and I knew from the outset that's what I wanted to do. I was influenced by people like Larry David, who plays what I feel is a caricatured version of himself, embellishing his neuroses — I don't know the man, but I imagine — his neuroses, and fears, and delusions for comedic effect.
How much do you want people to read the "real you" into the character?
I want people to be engaged by the character. If that means they have to apply a lot of similarities between him and me, so be it — I don't care, I'm not offended. He's not a necessarily a likable person, and it's okay if you don't think I'm a likable person, as long as you are engaged by the character.
This isn't the first time you've played a character named after yourself — you also wrote and starred in a film about "Alex Karpovsky" called The Hole Story in 2005, and your character on HBO's Girls was originally named "Karpovsky."
Right. Lena [Dunham] wrote the pilot and asked me to be in it. When she sent it to me, and it said "Karpovsky," the only note I had was, "Can we change the name?"
Why do you think you end up playing "yourself" so often?
Different directors would have different reasons, each of which you could probably analyze, [but] I think oftentimes stories need a character to agitate, or stir things up — unsubtle things, just to keep the story going forward. And for whatever reason, people think sometimes, in certain contexts, I can do that with a comedic wit. Maybe that's why they cast me. But I don't know why. Maybe they have their own reasons. It's not to be the romantic lead. Not to have a pretty face. [laughs]
Let's talk about "Boys," a recent episode of Girls that followed your character, Ray, as he joined Adam (Adam Driver) on an ill-fated trip to Staten Island. At this point, your character has evolved quite a bit from his introduction in season 1.
I loved playing Ray in season 1. I loved his anger, and his cynicism, and how judgmental he was. But in season 2, I've gotten even more pleasure out of playing him, because we've started to explore a lot more of who he is. I think we've done that across the board for a lot of the characters [in season 2].
How has your approach to playing Ray changed from season 1 to season 2?
Now that we've established who these people are, we're allowed to do two things. One is to explore underpinnings and backstory, which I think we've done with Ray. Two, you can go to really zany places without disorienting the audience, because they know who these people are now. We saw a little of that in episode 3 when Hannah goes on a coke bender. It was kind of a zany thing to do, but I don't think we could have done it [at the same point in season 1], because we didn't know Hannah well enough not to be disoriented.
What was it like filming "Boys" with Adam Driver? Though you're two of the most prominent male characters on Girls, it was your first time on screen together.
I'm so interested in Adam Driver's character. I've seen the first four episodes of season 2 — I watch them when they air, basically — and I am totally intrigued by the Adam character. He's so complicated and textured. I think he's one of the most interesting TV characters I've seen in a long time. But I've never had any scenes with him. So to be able to have a whole episode devoted, largely, to him and me was so fun. What I was saying earlier, about underpinnings… We both get to know so much about the other person in that episode, but we also figure out a lot about ourselves based on what the other person said.
What did "Boys" help you discover about Ray?
I feel like I get a lot of perspective about who I am based on what Adam says with regards to my relationship with Shoshanna. He criticizes it. Ray might dismiss [the criticism] as a reflex, but ultimately it does set in, and ultimately it does contextualize and shape his thinking about being with this girl — and the fact that she's so much younger and so different from him.
Red Flag trailer: